Fighting the Hydra: On the Return of Anti-Semitism

On Shabbat, Bet Chabad in Poway California was attacked by a White Supremacist, leaving one dead and a number wounded. The attack came six months after an even deadlier assault in Pittsburgh. Yesterday, the New York Times, published a deeply anti-Semitic cartoon that invoked the medieval image of the Jewish dog, the Satanic Judas and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Jews, together with people of good will, are justifiably horrified and grieve the senseless deaths, the desecration of holy ground. They are outraged at the explicit dehumanization of the Jew in terms more fitting of Der Stürmer and Völkischer Beobachter, than of the ‘Paper  of Record.’

They should not, however, be surprised.

Since the end of World War II, most of us have been under the illusion that Jew hatred has been in recession; relegated to the fringes of society, there to wither and die. That belief has proven to be wrong. Hatred of the Jew, whose roots reach back to Greece and Rome merely went underground. It did not wither. It lay dormant. Now, as a result of multiple forces, Anti-Semitism/Anti-Judaism has reemerged in Europe, in North America, and in Arabia.

The trouble is that we have become used to a world wherein Jew hatred was absent. Hence, its return elicits turmoil and pain. Part of the turmoil is because, in contrast to our forebears, we have lost our ‘sea-legs.’ We don’t know what to make of Antisemitism. We are constantly shocked to encounter it. So, we struggle to understand. We blame Anti-Zionism. We blame White Supremacists. We viciously blame each other, in the somewhat naïve belief that if Jews would only behave properly (each from his own point of view), Jew hatred could be defeated.

Yet, even if we grant that Jews are obligated to constantly improve their behavior, we will still miss the point. Anti-Semitism is an historical phenomenon that transcends all explanations. It defies reason and rejects logic (despite the best efforts of historians, philosophers and psychologists to explain it). How else can we understand that the Jew is dangerous because he is both Right and Left, Capitalist and Socialist? How else can we explain that Antisemitic images and prejudices pass easily from the Atheist Left to the White Supremacist Right to Jihadi Muslims? Antisemitism possesses one common denominator, the abiding hatred of the Jew and of Judaism.

So, what are we to do?

First, we must acknowledge that we are under attack from multiple directions. Making excuses for one side’s Jew-hatred encourages all. We must unhesitatingly acknowledge the fact that Jew hatred comes from different directions (even those with which we identify on other issues). Jews and all people of good will, uncompromisingly fight every manifestation of Antisemitism: Right or Left, Progressive or Conservative, Muslim or Christian.

Second, in order to fight one needs that for which to fight. I learned how from a beloved teacher. His name was Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth. In the mid-1930’s he was rabbi of the German town of Kitzingen. He fondly recalled those years as a ‘Golden Age’ for German Jewry. Why? Because the Jews responded to their dire situation by deepening their Jewishness. They studied their heritage, and sought out each other in communal solidarity. In brief, they answered their adversaries and became meaningfully steadfast by becoming better Jews.

In this old/new situation, if we do not come to understand that for which we exist as Jews, the consequences will be nothing if not fraught. Fatigue, despair, or even self-identification with our adversaries could result (as they have over the centuries). Engaging the hydra of Antisemitism together, based upon profound Jewish knowledge and identification (which, of course are best achieved in the Jewish Homeland), is a proven path to its subjugation (even if not its slaying).

Over my desk, hangs a cartoon. In it, a Professor tells his student: ‘Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.’ In these few lines, I have tried to share what I’ve learned from Jewish History. Let us learn its lessons, and not repeat them.

About the Author
Jeffrey Woolf is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. He is both a Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Historian, and an Orthodox Rabbi who is a long time advocate of the creation of a uniquely Israeli form of Modern Orthodoxy.
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